There was a football game played on Rich Brooks Field at Autzen Stadium Saturday evening, but 20 rows up from the left corner of the west end zone, something bigger than football was happening.
Brenda Tracy was sitting in the stands at a football game rooting for Mike Riley, the man who coached two Oregon State football players who gang raped Tracy along with two other men in 1998. Tracy wasn’t wearing red and she wasn’t there in support of the Oregon Ducks, she was there to see a man who had a role in changing her life and has now become one of her allies.
Riley got a call late last week from Tracy, asking if they could meet and Riley be introduced to Tracy’s two sons, Darius, 24, and Devante, 23. “We went to work on it,” Riley said and pulled together three tickets for Tracy and her sons to attend the game and meet him after it had concluded.
Originally, Darius didn’t want to go. He was five years old when his mother was raped near Oregon State’s campus, and he remains deeply loyal to her. When news broke of the assault, Riley called it “a bad choice” and suspended the players one game.
“A lot of difficult things happened with our family in those 16 years before I came forward with my story,” Tracy said. “Coach Riley has not only had an impact on me but he’s had an impact on my sons.
“I applaud their loyalty to me to be able to support me no matter what and also their courage to face someone who really impacted our lives.”
Darius ultimately decided to make the trip from Portland down to Eugene with his brother and his mom. “I’m mainly here for my mother, for support,” he said, but he didn’t know what to expect when meeting Riley for the first time.
Devante didn’t either, but he saw the chance to meet the Nebraska head coach as an opportunity to continue the healing process.
“He doesn’t have to do anything for her,” he said. “It makes it seem like he’s being genuine and really wants to make sure that he can try and do what he can to reconcile what happened in the past. You can’t fix what happened but at least he can let my mom know that he genuinely is sorry for what happened.”
Tracy first met with Riley 18 months ago, when she was invited to speak with him and the Huskers team about her sexual assault and its lasting damage. She hated Riley for the role he played, for victimizing her, but she went. Then she journeyed back to Lincoln last year for the Huskers spring game, her relationship with Riley growing with each visit.
“The first trip was really an important trip for me, Tracy said, “but it was kind of the keeping in touch in between and then my trip to the spring game that really solidified to me that this is real, this man really cares about me and what happened that first trip really happened.”
Now they exchange texts every now and again, nothing too serious and most of the time it’s prompted by random things here and there. Tracy said Riley doesn’t need to do that, but he does. He didn’t need to invite her to the Huskers facility, but he did. He didn’t need to nominate her for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, but he did. He didn’t have to give her tickets to the Huskers’ game Saturday, but he did.
“You always get concerned about PR and how things look and you wonder if people have ulterior motives but I think that Coach Riley’s motives are real, he wants me to be okay,” Tracy said.
Tracy never expected any of this either. Twenty-four months ago, she never would have anticipated forming a relationship with Riley, not up until the moment she first arrived in Lincoln.
“Even coming forward with my story I didn’t think any of this would happen,” she said. “I thought I would come forward and people would talk about it for 15 minutes and I’d just go back to my job. I never thought any of this would happen.”
Since coming forward, Tracy has spoken at dozens of colleges and football programs across the country about sexual assault and violence towards women, including Baylor and Oklahoma. She’s worked with the NCAA, the Pac-12 and Oregon State directly to ensure that other women don’t have to endure what she’s been made to. She told me last year that her goal is to make you uncomfortable because it’s only when we’re uncomfortable with what’s happening around us that we make real change.
“I’ve watched with admiration the work that she’s doing in the world to help educate,” Riley said of Tracy. “I think she’s brave and tough and spreads a message that needs to be spread, and does it in such a unique, great fashion that we’re all thankful for.”
When Riley finally met Tracy’s two sons on Saturday, they shook hands, they talked for a while and they took a few pictures together. Devante and Darius weren’t sure what to expect going in, but neither did Riley. “I had no idea what to expect,” he said.
And even though Riley’s football team lost its game on Rich Brooks Field inside Autzen Stadium, something bigger happened on the steps outside. Riley said he didn’t know Tracy’s whole story before. “As hard as it was, I’m glad I do now,” he said. And for Tracy and her sons, there’s a little bit of relief in knowing Riley means that.
“I know that if he could go back in time and change things,” Tracy said, “I believe he would.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.